Self-navigating Cane Could Better Lives for Visually Impaired

By: Allison Troutner  | 

Augmented Cane
In real-world situations, Stanford's augmented cane increased walking speed of users by an average of 20 percent. Andrew Brodhead

The white cane was introduced in the 1930s to help those living with visual impairment (VI) get around independently. While there have been many technological advances to improve the quality of life of those living with VI, like tactile paving, apps to experience the solar eclipse and smartphone apps for texting, white cane technology has remained relatively the same.

But now researchers at Stanford University have developed an AI robotic cane dubbed the augmented cane that's not only loaded with the latest developments in technology, but also can be built at home with store-bought parts and free software.

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Though the Stanford cane is not the first smart cane, it's by far the cheapest at $400 and most technologically advanced, using the latest tools in self-driving cars, smartphones and even LiDAR. The team published its information in the journal of Science Robotic Oct. 13, 2021.

"We wanted something more user-friendly than just a white cane with sensors," team lead Patrick Slade, a graduate research assistant in the Stanford Intelligent Systems Laboratory, said in a press statement. "Something that cannot only tell you there's an object in your way, but tell you what that object is, and then help you navigate around it."

How It Works

The augmented cane uses a LiDAR sensor — light laser technology used in autonomous cars, airplanes and archaeological digs — to gauge a user's distance to potential obstacles. It weighs a mere 3 pounds (1.4 kilograms) compared to other smart canes that weigh as much as 50 pounds (22.6 kilograms), and is equipped with GPS, accelerometers, magnetometers and gyroscopes that track a user's position, speed and direction. Navigating around pesky traffic cones or electric scooters will also be easier with the cane's motorized and omnidirectional wheel mounted at the tip of the cane. The cane gently tugs and nudges the user left and right around those obstacles.

In real-world tests at the Palo Alto Vista Center for the Blind and Visually Impaired, the cane excelled — it increased walking speed of users by an average of 20 percent. So the team wants to get the cane into the hands of as many people as possible. They've made it affordable and accessible to users. And the code, materials and electronic diagrams are free to download.

The augmented cane is still a prototype; more work is needed before those living with VI can use it daily. Researchers hope to open source the project and refine engineering to make it even cheaper and level up production. With advancements like this, the safety and independence of 253 million people worldwide living with VI, will significantly improve.

Augmented Cane
The omni wheel at the end of the augmented cane provides steering assistance using haptic technology to tug and nudge users around obstacles.
Andrew Brodhead

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